Program changes lives for the better

High school and college students aren’t the only ones graduating this month. Enterprise for Equity, an Olympia-based nonprofit group that helps those with limited incomes start and sustain small businesses, just sent another crop of graduates out into the entrepreneurial world.

Twenty aspiring owners of 18 businesses gathered for lunch with residents last week to celebrate a microenterprise initiative that can’t help but make you feel hopeful about the South Sound economy.

They took turns describing their businesses and what they learned from 75 hours of intensive training over three months to learn how to sustain and grow those businesses. Their stories evoked laughter, tears and silent reflection. It was a pretty powerful graduation ceremony.

This twice-a-year event for the past 10 years has churned out some 260 graduates, Enterprise for Equity executive director Lisa Smith said. She said 150 still are in business.

That compares favorably to a study by The Aspen Institute that showed 49 percent of microenterprises owned by low-income entrepreneurs survived after five years, a rate comparable to the national average for startup businesses.

“We do a lot of hand-holding after graduation and offer micro-loans of up to $5,000,” Smith added.

It costs about $3,700 to send someone through the course. Participants pay a small percentage of the cost, and no one is turned away for inability to pay, Smith said.

The majority of these microentrepreneurs moved out of poverty and reduced their reliance on government assistance. What’s not to like about a program like that?

Here’s what some of the Enterprise for Equity graduates had to say about their lives, their businesses and their education:

Zowie Aleshire of Broken Bow Farm in Rochester talked about all the practical things she learned about setting up her business, which includes poultry and lamb.

“As beginning farmers, the learning curve is steep,” she said. “Without Enterprise for Equity, it would have been a lot steeper. They taught us things I’d never think of, like how many lambs and chickens do we need to grow to cover our costs.”

Melissa Barker, who, along with her husband, owns and operates Lincoln Creek Farm in Lewis County, will be leaving her “off-the-farm” job – managing The Evergreen State College’s organic farm – next month. They package and deliver free-range poultry, lamb, pork and rabbits to customers from Olympia to Seattle.

“This program has helped me turn a hobby into a real business,” she said. “It was an intense, grueling process.”

Patricia Bolding is the owner of Organize It. For 10 years she’s helped people organize their worldly possessions and helped them with moves to new homes and businesses. She tackles projects large and small, from helping someone with clutter in their closet to downsizing possessions to move into a smaller home.

“I’ve always done pretty well, but I knew something was missing,” she said of her decision to sign up for the Enterprise for Equity training. “Now I know how to do break even, cash-flow and competition analyses.”

Ray Gleason of Cascade Tree Experts went through the Enterprise for Equity program for startup businesses seven years ago. This past winter, he suffered seizures that have reduced his short-term memory and made it difficult for him to run his business. So he sent a trusted co-worker, Brian Barberg, through the same Enterprise for Equity class he took years ago.

“Enterprise for Equity has helped Brian step in to help me keep the business going,” Gleason said.

Then there’s Yazna Ruiz, who, along with her two young children, arrived in South Sound from Costa Rica two years ago. She befriended Amando Hildago, the sole proprietor of Tierra Bonita, where he produced a South American salsa and garlic sauces that have gained a faithful following at the Olympia Farmers Market and the Olympia Food Co-ops.

Sadly, Hildago grew seriously ill and died three months ago. Before he passed away, he shared his special recipes with Ruiz and sold the business to her so she could keep Tierra Bonita alive.

As the crowd slowly filtered out of the Heritage Room on Water Street, I struck up a conversation with Tom Nelson, vice president and commercial loan officer at Thurston First Bank. Nelson reviews business plans prepared by the Enterprise for Equity microentrepreneurs. He’s a big supporter of the program.

“Most of these people aren’t bankable, but some will be as they grow their businesses,” he said. “This is what we need to grow the local economy, not just a bunch of recycled government jobs.”

John Dodge: 360-754-5444